TUPELO — The Mississippi Furniture Association, established in 1997, has evolved into a watchdog for the state’s $3.2-billion furniture industry, which provides almost 50,000 jobs and pays $1 billion in wages.
“Our association can best be described as a lobbying group to protect the interests of the industry,” said Crowell Armstrong, executive director of the Tupelo-based association. “We try to kill any legislation that would hurt our industry. We watch what’s going on so that we can at least hold on to what we have.”
Tort reform legislation is the top priority for the 2002 legislative session for MFA, which consists of nearly 70 manufacturers, fabric producers and other suppliers, Armstrong said.
“The whole business climate in the State of Mississippi needs some relief this year through tort reform legislation, and it doesn’t look like we will get any,” he said.
Because the MFA is primarily a defensive organization for the furniture industry, marketing efforts are centered on the semiannual Tupelo Furniture Market, where more than 1,000 exhibitors showcase upholstered furniture and case goods in more than 1.5 million square feet of show space.
Established in September 1987 as a way for manufacturers in the region to showcase their products, the Tupelo Furniture Market attracts approximately 50,000 visitors, including buyers from all 50 states and 37 foreign countries, and has evolved into the No. 1 order writing market in the country.
The spring show being held this week, Feb. 21-24, is expected to draw the largest-ever crowd.
“We’re expecting a tremendous market this year because all the stores and warehouses are very low on inventory,” Armstrong said. “The economy — and the furniture manufacturing business — is rebounding. Several manufacturers have very good orders already in the first part of this year. We’re very optimistic we’re going to see a good year.”
By the fall show, scheduled Aug. 15-18, the market should be even stronger as the upward trend continues, Armstrong said.
“Over the next several years, the outlook is bright,” he said. “Exports are growing yearly. We’re seeing a lot of furniture going to the Middle East, where it wasn’t going in the past. Markets there have been opened up and should become significant. Other established markets are in Central and South America, especially Brazil.”
Janice Coleman, executive director of the Tupelo complex, one of the two complexes that comprise the Tupelo Furniture Market, said even though more imports are being shown at the spring market because labor costs are so low in foreign countries, the demand is high for Mississippi-made products.
“The demand for furniture is trending up,” Coleman said. “When people start buying furniture, that’s the start of the upswing out of a recession.”
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, consumer spending for furniture and bedding in the U.S. totaled $64.3 billion in August 2001, a decrease of .05% from the previous month and 1.2% from the previous year.
The decline is attributed to a sluggish economy and a lessened buying interest from GenXers, whose desire for furniture is not as great as their predecessors, Coleman said.
“The GenXers’ furniture needs are totally different than the needs of their parents and grandparents,” she said. “Furniture is not as important to that generation. They would rather spend their money on other things. The industry has seen a drop off in every decade, but demand is still strong.”
An increasing number of companies are showing case goods, or pieces of furniture sold as sets, which now accounts for about half of all exhibitors at the Tupelo Furniture Market.
More than 100 furniture-related companies are located in Northeast Mississippi, with two-thirds of all furniture built in the state coming from the 10-county area. Lee County employs the most, approximately 10,000 workers. Pontotoc County employs roughly half that number, followed respectively by Chickasaw, Tippah, Union, Monroe, Alcorn, Tishomingo, Prentiss and Itawamba counties, according to the Community Development Foundation of Tupelo.
Even though Mississippi still takes a backseat to the North Carolina furniture industry, which employs twice as many people, Tupelo is considered the upholstery furniture capitol of the world.
“We have more made and shipped out of this area than anywhere else,” said Coleman.
Coleman, who, along with Armstrong, helped establish MFA, said the association, which offers numerous programs and insurance services to its members, also promotes the Tupelo area and Mississippi.
“Hospitality is important to us,” she said. “One of my favorite things is to see that ‘Make Mine Mississippi’ tag around the market halls.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org</a.